Volodymyr Zelenskyy: ‘No one is humiliating Ukraine. They are killing us’
FT editor Roula Khalaf talks to Ukrainian president Zelenskyy about Macron's warnings on Putin, his aims in war and a future peace, and Boris Johnson's confidence vote
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President Zelenskyy, welcome to The Global Boardroom. And thank you for taking the time to be with us. We know what a burden you have on your shoulders right now.
I don't think I need to introduce you. You are the most famous person in the world. So I will get right into the questions.
Of course, thank you.
We are now past 100 days of Russia's war in Ukraine. Ukrainians have repelled Russian troops. And they have defended their country. But they have also sacrificed a lot.
Experts tell us that a successful counter-offensive today to drive Russian troops is going to need a lot more equipment, and particularly ammunition. So are we to assume that the war is heading towards a stalemate? And what does that mean for Ukraine?
Thank you for the question. First of all, stalemate is not an option for us. We cannot go on living in this position in hostilities. We are getting used to it. All of our people, our citizens, are very tough. They are, indeed, capable of getting accustomed to such conditions because they know for a fact what they are fighting for, and against whom.
You are totally right in saying that delaying the occupation of our territories is very much dependent on political support, on ammunition from the west, and the sanctions, understandable and powerful sanctions policies. It depends not only on the unity of our people, and our government, and the armed forces of Ukraine. Therefore, a stalemate is not our option to accept. I can state today that on certain directions we have a threat that Russian troops are going to advance.
Mr President, what would you consider to be a victory in this war? Would you consider a return to pre-February 24 lines to be the victory? Or would you consider liberating all of occupied territory the victory for you?
I believe that this is the war for independence and the freedom of our country. Independence, in my opinion, and in the opinion of most of our people, is regaining all of our territories, restoring our territorial integrity and the inviolable sovereignty of Ukraine. This is what we should pass on to posterity, to future generations.
And this is not just some shallow ranting on my part. I think that this is, indeed, will be a great victory for a much tormented people of Ukraine. But, indeed, that will be a just, a fair victory.
But as of now, I can say that restoring the borders that we controlled before 24th of February is a serious temporary victory, temporary because we, indeed, have to achieve a full deoccupation of our entire territory.
We were speaking about a stalemate, Mr President. How do you break the stalemate? And are you expecting your victory to be on the battlefield?
Definitely, absolutely. Victory must be achieved on the battlefield. Or so to say, not only victory, but rather a reliable situation on the battlefield, where we would be able to see our clear position and the powerful equipment of ours, which is not inferior to Russian troops and equipment. This is what we are headed towards. And this is what we strive to achieve because in order to advance, as you well know, you need more than 10 times the advantage over the enemy.
We definitely have the strongest desire than Russians. But we are inferior in terms of equipment. Therefore, we are not capable of advancing. This is a very important point, that that is what's going to ensure change from the stalemate, or whatever you called it.
So until we do not have it, it will be very difficult for us. We are going to suffer more losses. And people is my priority. To find a way out from the stalemate we need a abiding interest from the west in supporting Ukraine's sovereignty and our position.
There cannot be some talks behind Ukraine's back, any kinds of expectations from certain countries that we are going to weaken our position, we need to wait, or perhaps Ukraine is going to be distressed economically, or perhaps Ukraine is going to be destructed infrastructurally, perhaps Ukraine will have financial deficit, and then perhaps Ukraine will be willing to accede some concessions. But we have already lost too many people in order to simply to cede our territory. That it is not possible. In terms of weapons, it is understandable we need political commitment from the world and powerful sanctions that will be helpful to bring Russia to the negotiating table, without any kinds of ultimatums from their part.
I want to get to the negotiating table in a second. But you've said that some countries are pushing you towards some result that is unacceptable to you. Who is pushing you, and to do what?
As of now, this pushing, this nudging comes from the political and information situation in the world. There is this idea that there are no negotiations, there are no agreements, that allegedly there is a situation as a kind of misunderstanding. So therefore, some country could take on the role of a mediator. Some people are proposing certain conditions on which Russia could agree with Ukraine. This is not something done solely by Russia.
I'm not going to mention specific countries now. But everyone is acting like a cypher. They are supporting Ukraine but also checking on what could be done to weaken sanctions for businesses not to suffer.
They are taking soundings in order to promote a certain initiative. So we do not need any alternative decisions, apart from those selected by our country. And the majority of countries support our position in the civilised world.
Let me mention something that Emmanuel Macron said recently, that he's been calling on the west not to humiliate Russia, and to find a negotiated solution to the war. And as you said, some west, some other countries have begun discussing a possible ceasefire without Ukraine's direct involvement. So are you prepared to go along with any of these initiatives? And what do you make of President Macron's comments?
First of all, how can we achieve a ceasefire in the territory of Ukraine without listening to the position of our country, and without listening to the position of the leader of this country? This is very, very surprising. Some people want to be leaders. But in order to be a leader, you do not need to consider yourself one, but to behave as a leader. This is the first point.
And it is also very important that leadership is manifested in everything, inside you. If you want to put an end to this war, you can be a leader of this process. Therefore, you have influence. You have an influence on the result of this process.
So apart from words, you should manifest what actually you could do; provide weapons support, bring Putin to the negotiating table beside Ukraine. Put Ukraine and Russia on the negotiating table. And influence the process to ensure that there is not just rhetoric about achieving a ceasefire. You should define the conditions for a ceasefire. Who should end this war?
You need to achieve guarantees from Russia on how they are going to ensure the ceasefire. And I do not have any answers to these questions. I do not see just such conjecture, such configuration to put an end to this war. And I simply cannot see the preconditions for ending the war.
We are grateful for the sanctions that have already been imposed. But they have not really influenced Russia's position. So this is a piecemeal action. We are drawing out, so to say, this satisfaction.
But we need to be very clear what we are doing. We need to embargo. We need complete oil and gas embargoes. We need to discuss it.
Otherwise, time will be on the side of Russian leadership. They will find ways to circumvent sanctions. And they already have some positive results in this regard. So if you are saying something, you need to reinforce these words with concrete action.
As for your... the first part of your question, I do not really understand what is humiliating Russia. Humiliating what? I mean, are we talking about long-term prospects? Are we talking about the fact that for eight years they have been killing Ukrainians? What are you... what are we talking about here?
Emmanuel Macron has a deep understanding of the process. Macron is one of the leaders of the Normandy Four. He has a profound understanding of the Minsk accords. He has a profound understanding of all the details that have been... details of all the arrangements made by/with the Russian Federation, and Russia's failure to comply with these accords.
Russia has constantly derailed the ceasefire regime. Russia has derailed the exchange of prisoners. So what kind of humiliation are we talking about?
I do not even believe that they are humiliating Ukraine. That would be a weak position. No one is humiliating us. They are killing us.
So in response, we are not going to humiliate anyone. We are going to respond in kind.
Mr President, you are suggesting that you don't think sanctions are working because they are not changing Russian behaviour. Of course, it is over time that sanctions will be able, potentially, to change Russian behaviour. Are you saying Ukraine doesn't have the luxury of that time?
I think that you are totally right. The result of sanctions will be plain to see over time. Certain sanctions have turned out to be very efficient. They have dealt a severe blow to the Russian economy.
And we need to continue in the same spirit. We need to switch off all Russian banks from SWIFT because if part of them are switched off and part of them continue operating the system is trying to find an off ramp, trying to find a way out from... with the help of certain financial institutions, and with the assistance of certain leaders. And this is exactly what is happening.
Russia has found ways to circumvent these measures. We are constantly working with our partners. They are helping them. When we come across a certain way for Russia to circumvent the sanctions, we are making sure that they cannot use it.
This is also about the ports that receive Russian products. This is also another direction in which we are working. Our intelligence agencies are constantly engaged in this process.
We treat sanctions very seriously. We believe that this is a very powerful weapon, a weapon without blood. This is very important. This is a very humane way. This is a very economic and modern instrument.
I don't want it to be shallow rhetoric. Sanctions against Russia are working when they are implemented in a very concrete way, and when we ensure that there is no way to find loopholes to avoid these sanctions. When Ukrainian ports are blocked, we cannot export Ukraine's grains, sunflower oil, and so on.
Here is the concrete example. Russia has stolen a certain amount of our grain and took it on their ships abroad. These ships entered certain countries.
But we were able to find out this information. And we can warn the countries to which the ships were destined. We warned them that we were going to unite the west and rally other countries against you.
But you understand the gravity of the precedent, which means that someone is willing to do so. They want to profit off this situation. So that means that sanctions must not only be introduced. They have to be implemented very carefully. They have to be controlled.
You spoke about the ports. The UN is leading talks to end the Black Sea blockade. As you say, Putin is insisting that he will only lift the sanctions against-... he will only allow this if the sanctions against Moscow are weakened. Do you think there's any hope here for any kind of resolution?
I guess that this is a threat of global magnitude. That is just one side to this threat. This is the Russian Federation. There is no dialogue here.
This is a very concrete, tangible threat to Asia, Africa, and certain countries in Europe because we understand that the ensuing consequences might be famine and migration that is going to affect Europe. So the consequences may be very severe. And everyone knows for a fact that we are not going to let Russian ships to Ukrainian ports because they attack us on a daily basis. And everyone knows for a fact that Ukraine is ready to export everything that we have. We are ready for normal, civilised conditions, but on safe terms.
Therefore, we proposed our own initiative and submitted it to the United Nations. They have supported it. This is a scheme concerning a safe maritime corridor that can be used by all countries except the Russian Federation because we do not have any trust in Russia. We are waging a war against them. We cannot... there is no trust between us.
So this is exactly what we can come to terms with other countries, I mean with the maritime corridor. After it, we will be able to export our grain abroad. Then we will be able to bring up the matter of respect for international norms. And then we will be able to ensure the preconditions that Russia is not able to fire against Ukrainian ports, with support from the United Nations.
This is it. We do not have any arrangements with the Russian Federation. They are not possible.
Mr President, I want to talk about conditions for peace talks. But first, I'm currently in London, which is where we are headquartered. And as I'm sure you know, there was a confidence vote in the prime minister Boris Johnson yesterday.
One of his allies said later last night that you must be so happy, punching in the air because he won the confidence vote. Are you very pleased that he won the confidence vote?
So did his aide talk to me directly?
No, no. He... no, no. Somebody said... they said it publicly.
That I should be happy that Boris Johnson is still prime minister? Is that right? Well, I am very happy about it.
I am happy because I think that Boris Johnson is a true friend of Ukraine. I regard him as our ally. I think that Great Britain is our great ally.
I cannot comment on the internal political situation. I do not know all the details. So I beg pardon to Prime Minister Johnson about this. I think that he is much better informed about the details than I am. And this is true because we communicate with him about the assistance provided by the UK because we face this terrible war.
But I want to be frank with you, Boris is supporting us. Boris is very concrete in supporting Ukraine. I do not know who was responsible for this decision yesterday, but I am glad that we have not lost a very important ally. This is great news. This is all I can say.
OK. Let me just go back to... you mentioned a few times peace talks. Back in March there was a peace track. And we had reported at the time that there was progress that involved Ukraine renouncing its ambitions to join Nato and promising not to host foreign military bases.
Now, this was before Bucha. This was before Mariupol, before a lot of the atrocities. Could there be a resumption of peace talks today? And what would be your conditions?
Starting from 24th of February, I have a feeling that we have had two lives. And this is the feeling that everyone in Ukraine has experienced. We have the feeling that 10 years... that this war has been lasting for 10 years.
So much is happening these days. And I'm at a loss for words to describe it. I just want to say that the situation keeps changing constantly.
I am still determined that any war should be ended at the negotiating table. This is exactly how it happened in history. I am still resolute and determined. Whether I want it or not, I am ready for direct negotiations with President Putin, if we are ready to discuss putting an end to this war seriously.
My behaviour remains unchanged. That is it, because I think that Russian... when in the Russian Federation these days, there is no one to talk to except President Putin. And we are waging this war against Russian Federation.
So this is the point. Talking about some other things, I think that this is simply unreasonable. There is no time for it.
There is no time right... this is not the time right now for it, you mean?
I don't think that we should squander our time to discuss Ukraine's Nato accession or some other scenarios. I am reacting to facts on the ground. If we are not in Nato there is no basis of foreign countries in our territory. If you want to accept us into Nato then please invite us. But we are not discussing it at the moment.
Mr President, can you imagine a time... I understand that you would be ready to sit with Mr, with President Putin in order to discuss peace. However, can you imagine a time when Ukraine, you, would have a peaceful relationship with Russia so long as Mr Putin is in power?
This is a very tough question. This is very associated with the sacrifice and the casualties. And I'd like to answer this question in a very concrete way, not abstractly. But I do not have this concrete response.
As the president, I understand. And as a person, I understand that the question of war and peace is between the two of us, is between the two troops of our countries. And it depends on the willingness of two sides.
It can depend on one side. This is what we are seeing now. Russia wanted to have this war.
But unfortunately, now putting an end to this war does not depend on one side because if it was the case we would have already put an end to this bloodthirsty war. We do not want to have it. But we do not have any other choice.
Let me ask you this. Do you think that the war, just looking ahead a little bit, do you think that the war will provide something of a fresh start for Ukraine? Because it has kindled a sense of national unity. It has restored faith in the effectiveness of the Ukrainian state.
And your own popularity has been greatly enhanced. Even the power of Ukraine's oligarchs seems to have been reduced. So what is your vision for this country that will one day be at peace again?
I'd like everything that you have just mentioned to come to life. I'd like the same national spirit to be there after the war ends because this unity is going to give us a chance to prevail in this battle. It will give us a chance to restore our country. And it will give us a chance to become a great nation because we are already a great nation now.
I want to bring in some really interesting questions from our audience. Let me start with one about personal, individual actions. What actions can the ordinary person in the street in the UK take to best support the Ukrainian fight?
Thank you for your question. It is very important that you keep interest to our country. You need to understand that this is not simply a problem of Ukraine. This is a war.
You need to understand that this is a global issue, tens of thousands of casualties, of killed people. I'm not going to mention any specific financial issues, political questions. This is all a trifle thing. We are going to survive it.
Deficit of fuel, inflation... of course, this is an adversity for us. But we can survive it with dignity. But please do not forget that this war is still raging here. And you cannot be tired in the west from this war. There can be no fatigue.
I thank you for this opportunity to have this interview. I thank you personally. We would like to implore you, you cannot forget about it. Please do everything that you can. If you can help internally displaced people, Ukrainian migrants, please set up shelters for them, to the best of your abilities.
This is not... this is just my request. You are not obliged to do this. But please make sure that you do not forget about this war.
This is a war in Europe. It can spill over to your borders. We clearly understand whom we are dealing with at the moment. So this is my request - please support us.
Today, the leadership of your country is supporting Ukraine. That is true. But still, I would like you to remember that politicians of your country need to be united in their support to Ukraine. Your words from the journalistic community are of crucial importance. I believe that this is the top priority at the moment, the paramount thing.
When you take to the streets, you need to be very responsible in supporting Ukraine. This is a very important thing to do. This is a crucial signal that manifests your support to us. You, in doing so, you can breach the Iron Curtain of information to reach out to Russian people, to inform them of who is their leader because you need to reach out to them in order to break this curtain. Thank you.
Let me turn to another issue, which is of great importance when it comes to both public opinion but also government action. What can people do - this is a question from the audience - to encourage non-European powers, India, China, Brazil, South Africa, to more strongly back Ukraine? And have you had, or are you interested in having, direct communication with Chinese leaders to urge them to use their influence to end the war?
I'm very much interested in this. I'm interested in uniting the world, in rallying it together. I am interested in having the position of the Chinese leadership and the Chinese public. This is a paramount priority for us. It is important that such a great country could influence Russia to end this war, and to ensure that China does not support Russia.
But there are different interests, divergent interests between the western world, and China, and so on. I understand this. But it seems to me that such threats for societies, for the civilisation, as this war can lead to the third world war. And I think that this must be a priority for every leader, and most importantly for leaders of great nations. Therefore, I am keenly interested in ensuring that China supports Ukraine.
Mr President, I would love to go on for many hours. But I know that you have a war to fight. And I'm told that we have to wrap up.
So I cannot thank you enough for taking the time to be with us today. And I hope to see you in Kyiv soon and in peace. Thank you.